Trawling Netflix for hidden Covid truth

Escaping the vaccine immune escape

Over the weekend, the weight of current events got to me. It drove me to seek distraction. More accurately, I promised my wife I’d take a break from reading Covid news and from futile debates online with Covid zealots. And so I took to Netflix and sought out some pre-2020 viewing I was convinced would be as far away from Emergency Use Authorisations, monoclonal antibodies and vaccine passports as possible. This took the form of one movie and one series: a rewatch of the excellent film “The Big Short”, and a new-ish series about a magician doing street tricks on randomers, called “Magic for Humans”.

Though highly entertaining, both titles failed to provide an escape from the ‘Rona Blues. To my utter surprise, I’d picked two offerings that struck closer to the heart of the Covid debate than any Joe Rogan podcast or John Campbell Youtube Clip could.

Blame it on the algorithm.

Herd immunity versus herd mentality

Of course, both are set in a world that existed before the corona crisis was even a twinkle in Klaus Schwab’s eye. The Big Short was made in 2015, but it describes events leading up to the financial crash of 2008. More specifically, it details how the mortgage bond market was manipulated through the creation of financial instruments (called collateralised debt obligations) that encouraged ever riskier subprime lending. I’d seen it all before, but in the rearview mirror of media-induced virus hysteria, the underlying theme really comes into focus.

The film lays bare that the 2008 crisis was not only likely, but in fact inevitable. The fascinating part of the story is not how a handful of finance guys figured this out (and therefore made millions), it is how everyone else didn’t. After all, nothing they discovered was in any way hidden. The only thing these guys did differently was look. They literally walked into housing estates in Florida and talked to mortgage brokers, homeowners and real estate agents and quickly understood that the loans backing the bonds were garbage. Which meant the bonds were garbage, which meant the banks holding the bonds were garbage.

How did Alan Greenspan and his successor Ben Bernanke not see this coming? How did the shareholders of the banks, who lost their life savings, not see it? How did the legislators and the President not see it? For those of us who still believe in rationality, it is a humbling reminder that the wisdom of the masses is based on nothing more than the wool of the sheep standing next to you. Just because something is posted on a billboard, a government website, or comes blasting out of your neighbour’s mouth, doesn’t make it true.

The other lesson from The Big Short, even more worrying, is that when this kind of mass delusion takes root, it takes a hard and painful crash in order for everyone to snap out of their hypnosis. That was what I stewed on as the closing credits rolled.

It’s a kinda magic

So I shook my head and turned to the magician Justin Willman doing tricks on the mask-free streets of a 2018 Los Angeles. “Magic for Humans” sounded both magical and, well, …human. Surely the widening of children’s eyes as a blob of water defies gravity would succeed where global financial mismanagement had failed to distract my Covid-addled brain. And the first few of Willman’s tricks did not disappoint – artful slights of hand; fun gimmicks to please passer-bys. That is, until he got to the internet influencers.

This segment came in episode 2, and it made my blood run cold. Three young internet personalities were brought into a sort of ‘fun house’ and given a diverse box of props. After a short introduction by the magician, they were asked to go around the various rooms with their phones, separately, and take selfies with whatever props they thought would make the best Instagram post. Afterwards, Willman asked them to each separately select the single best picture and give it a hashtag. Without any consultation, all three had chosen the same spot in the house – a watermelon themed swing; the same prop – an ice tray; and the same hashtag – #TrayCool. Then Willman revealed the picture he had already pre-cooked of himself with exactly the same details, the one he knew they would do too.

Influencing the influencers is scary-easy – “Magic for Humans” Episode 2 (Netflix)

Plus ca change, plus on demeure aussi idiot qu’avant

The point was that his ‘short intro’ was so full of suggestive images that they had been steered into making what they thought were independent choices, but were in fact pre-programmed by the magician himself. Of course, when you see a trick like that play out, it is almost impossible not to draw the parallels to what has been happening over the past 21 months. If one TV magician can manipulate people so completely in the space of five minutes, just think what a team of ‘nudgers’ in a government department could do, with the resources of the State, the complicity of the mainstream media, and the cooperation of all the Big Tech platforms.

Could they do enough to get people to take an experimental vaccine they don’t need and could possibly harm them? Enough to get them to give it to their children? Enough to get them to surrender all their civil liberties and cower from life, triple-masked, in a bubble of fear? Enough to get them to agree to show a medical record to access their local pub or supermarket, forever, with no sunset clause? Enough to get them to hate… yes HATE … anyone who opposes the prevailing narrative – even close friends, even loved ones?

Maybe so. We’ll have to wait for the Netflix documentary to find out.

Absolute risk reduction for vaccines in UK

I bothered to crunch some numbers on coronavirus vaccine efficacy, based on the UK’s latest published data which covers week 45 of 2021. I should note that this data comes to me from Eugyppius’ very excellent substack.

The UK Health Security Agency notes at the outset of the report that using the raw data contained in the weekly reports to calculate vaccine efficacy is problematic. Unfortunately, they then go on to give us their own take on vaccine efficacy, which is basically to say the vaccines are highly effective, based on published studies which date from May 2021, a time when efficacy from S Antibodies was riding high. Needless to say, in a world of waning vaccine efficacy and dominant Delta, these studies are next to useless.

Their caveats are well taken. Without controls, we don’t know very much about the populations of vaxxed versus unvaxxed, so it’s difficult to say we are comparing like with like. Still, given the time issues and the fact that massive public health decisions are being taken in real time, one must work with even flawed data, and try to read what it says. So here goes:

Cases, deaths and case fatality rates in Weeks 41-44 of 2021 for the United Kingdom

The top box shows the cases of new infections for Weeks 41 – 44 by age bracket and vaccination status. The middle box shows deaths for the same cohort, and for the same categories. This is data straight from the report. The bottom box shows the case fatality rate, i.e. the proportion of deaths among cases, for the two main categories (vaxxed and unvaxxed).

Right away, alarm bells should be ringing here. Case Fatality Rates, though following known trajectories with respect to age, seem high. Really high. For the over 80s the data suggests a CSF for the unvaxxed of over 30%, for the vaxxed almost 13%. We have known since the Diamond Princess that SARS-CoV-2 just isn’t that deadly. So this suggests we are looking at a very small subset of some unknown Infection Fatality Rate, or that the virus has evolved in a super-deadly direction. Hmm.

The last column of the bottom box is what I want to focus on though. It shows the absolute risk reduction – i.e. the percentage point reduction in fatality risk associated with being vaccinated. Again, all the caveats apply, and the fact that case fatality rates seem strangely high suggests these numbers are an upper bound. But the picture that is painted is so stark, it should be looked at and listened to by anyone pushing for more vaccination and boosters.

For anyone aged under 50, the absolute risk reduction from taking the vaccine is less than a quarter of a percentage point. For anyone under the age of 18, the absolute risk reduction is less than a quarter of a hundredth of a percentage point. To put this number into some kind of context, consider that the CDC reports the risk of death from the vaccine itself to be 0.0022%, virtually identical to childrens’ absolute risk reduction from the vaccine, i.e. the benefit.

The idea of pushing a medical procedure with unknown long-term risks and with short-term risks as high as if not higher than the benefits is, to say the least, neither rational nor medically ethical.

Open Letter to Christie Morreale concerning future COVID measures (in French)

Madame le Ministre,

Vos remarques de ce week-end passé sur des possibles mesures à entreprendre vers une obligation vaccinale contre le COVID-19 en Belgique m’ont interpellé.

Tout d’abord, des telles mesures iraient à l’encontre de droits fondamentaux, plus précisément la chartre des droits fondamentaux de l’Union européenne, Article 3:

« Dans le cadre de la médecine et de la biologie, doivent notamment être respectés: le consentement libre et éclairé de la personne concernée… »

Mais il existe également des raisons bien plus pratiques et immédiates pour mettre en cause l’approche vaccinale contre le COVID-19: Il ne fonctionne pas aussi bien que promis. Partout dans le monde, y compris la Belgique, nous constatons que le nombre de cas « percée » ne cesse pas d’augmenter. Pire encore, là où le taux de vaccination est le plus élevé, on retrouve également un taux d’infection plus élevé.

Les chiffres de Sciensano met la situation au clair (Page 28 du rapport de 11 novembre 2021):

Au  cours  de  la  période  du  25  Octobre  2021  au  7  novembre  2021,  un  total de  2285 personnes ont été hospitalisées pour le COVID-19 en Belgique. Parmi elles, 670 n’étaient pas vaccinées, 31 l’étaient partiellement, 1289 l’étaient entièrement

Donc plus que la moitié d’hospitalisations COVID-19 dans la période la plus récente concerne des personnes dites « totalement immunisées ».

Face à une nouvelle vague, la population wallonne est fatiguée d’une politique sanitaire de plus en plus contrainte – port de masque, confinement, CST [COVID Safe Ticket]…  qui s’avère complétement inefficace – le taux d’infection globale en Belgique étant inchangé depuis la meme période de l’année dernière, malgré toutes nos sacrifices.

Il est plus que temps, Madame le Ministre, de changer notre approche – et non pas de renchérir.

Bien à vous,

Graham STULL

cc HARDY Maxime, LEGASSE Dimitri, DISABATO Manu, DURENNE Véronique, VANDORPE Mathilde, DELPORTE Valérie

On lockdowns, masks, vaccines and vaccine-mandates

Lockdowns don’t work (very well)...

Even to the extent the idea of forcing healthy people to hide away in their homes to avoid getting sick ever could work, as of today we are well past that point. The virus is now endemic. Everyone will get exposed to SARS-CoV-2, many will develop symptomatic infection (Covid), of which the vast majority will develop natural immunity and recover fully. A small number, mostly those past normal life expectancy, will die. That’s kind of sad, but not really.

…but they do cause harm.

Lockdowns ruin our economies, drive people (especially the young) into depression and anxiety. They concentrate economic power among large companies and Big Tech. They reduce the flow of goods and services in our economies and make us poorer. They inhibit the sick from seeking genuinely beneficial medical care when needed. They disproportionately impact the disadvantaged, especially children.

Masks don’t work (very well)…

Especially when imposed on people who would otherwise not wear them. This is because the virus doesn’t transmit asymptomatically, so the best advice is for sick people to stay home (always good advice). To the extent we have any idea how it transmits, it’s thought to be through aerosolised particles so tiny that nothing short of a hazmat suit will make much difference. Or it could be through the manifold animal reservoirs that now exists in every patch of woods from New Brunswick across the Bering Straight and all the way to Brittany. We don’t really know – after all SARS-CoV-2 has never been isolated. But from the epidiomological data we can be pretty sure masks make little to no difference.

…but they do cause harm.

They inhibit human contact and expression. They hamper children from developing cognitive skills. They deaden our souls by robbing us of the ability to smile at strangers we pass in the park. Finally, they cost money and resources to make, and they pollute our landscapes.

Vaccines’ don’t work (very well)…

They provide some short term immunity through S antibody production, which wans to almost nothing after 11 months. Boosters may revitalise the protective effect, and therefore be effective for a small number of vulnerable people, as a stop-gap measure. But mutations of the virus will almost certainly make the current vaccines redundant the longer this ‘pandemic’ drags on. They may also inhibit the production of more durable N antibodies or suppress the production of T- and B-cell immunity, which is the true key to ending COVID. The best we can hope for by doubling down on mass vaccination is an endless cycle of booster shots, piling ever more toxins into our bodies and enriching Big Pharma in a sad, dystopian spiral of medical dependency and immuno-suppresion.

…but they do cause harm.

They cost billions of euros/dollars/pounds to produce, diverting resources away from the productive economy and therefore from the truly vulnerable. Short term adverse effects, while low in absolute terms, are relatively high – and by ‘relatively’ I mean an order of magnitude higher than for all other vaccines currently approved. These include fatigue, nausea, myocarditis, and my personal favourite: sudden death. Long term effects, in particular concerning immuno-suppression in the case of mRNA ‘vaccines’, are unknown, but there are at least theoretical pathways to imagine they could cause harm on an apocalyptic scale.

Vaccine mandates/passports don’t work...

Either it is the case that the vaccines don’t work (see above), in which case the mandates are senseless, or it is the case that they do, in which case the mandates are redundant. Even leaving aside this obvious conclusion, there is a more pragmatic point: Mandates are self-defeating in the signalling they send to the vaccine hesitant, who will naturally start to wonder why, if this jab is so good for them, the authorities feel the need to coerce them into taking it.

…but they do cause harm.

They set truly dangerous precedents regarding medical autonomy and patients rights, not to mention personal privacy and liberty. These are important concerns at all times in human history, but in the age of digitalisation, the only ones who would not shy away from the dangers of medical-based IDs of this kind are fools and tyrants. There is a deeper social point: Vaccine compulsion divides us – along ideological lines, along racial or ethnic lines, or even in terms of exacerbating existing socio-economic inequalities. We are already far too divided. Worst of all, it creates the belief that the human body in its natural state is unclean, sullied and requires a State-sanctioned ceremony to be purified.

Letter on Ivermectin to the COVID Expert Advisory Group of the Irish Health Services Executive

Below the text of a letter sent by email on June 16 to various members of the Irish HSE’s expert group on the decision to not recommend oral ivermectin or any other antiviral treatments in the context of the current COVID situation

Dear members of the COVID-19 EAG,

I read with some alarm the 5 February advice issued by HIQA concerning the use of interventions to prevent the progression of severe COVID-19 in an ambulatory setting.

The document appears to include information which is either not correct, incomplete, or has since lost topicality and therefore is in need of urgent update:

Very low certainty’ evidence was identified from a further two studies (both published as preprints) of two interventions: ivermectin plus doxycycline and sulodexide. Serious concerns were raised with regard to the high risk of bias, small sample sizes and short durations of follow-up within the trials. As such, results from these studies should not be used to inform decision-making with Advice to the National Public Health Emergency Team: Interventions in an ambulatory setting to prevent progression to severe disease in patients with COVID-19 Health Information and Quality Authority Page 11 of 16 respect to effectiveness. Neither study was considered applicable to the Irish healthcare setting due to differences in usual care provided in the trials.” (Pages 10-11)

as well as:

The EAG agreed that there is currently no evidence of benefit associated with the treatments considered within the present review and there is insufficient information on whether any of these may be safely used in the treatment of Advice to the National Public Health Emergency Team: Interventions in an ambulatory setting to prevent progression to severe disease in patients with COVID-19 Health Information and Quality Authority Page 12 of 16 COVID-19. Furthermore, some of the interventions investigated within the trials would not be considered applicable to the Irish setting due to differences in the standard of care and or on the basis of safety concerns.” (page 11-12)

Regarding safety concerns, I am sure you are all well aware of the fact that ivermectin, when administered in appropriate doses, has a safety track-record spanning many decades.

Concerning efficacy, note that the American Journal of Therapeutics has published, in May 2021, a “Review of the Emerging Evidence Demonstrating the Efficacy of Ivermectin in the Prophylaxis and Treatment of COVID-19” (Kory et al, 2021), which concludes that:

Meta-analyses based on 18 randomized controlled treatment trials of ivermectin in COVID-19 have found large, statistically significant reductions in mortality, time to clinical recovery, and time to viral clearance. Furthermore, results from numerous controlled prophylaxis trials report significantly reduced risks of contracting COVID-19 with the regular use of ivermectin. Finally, the many examples of ivermectin distribution campaigns leading to rapid population-wide decreases in morbidity and mortality indicate that an oral agent effective in all phases of COVID-19 has been identified.

This conclusion is echoed by Bryant et al*, still in pre-print, but expected to pass peer review in the coming days.
I would urge you to consider, as a matter of priority, updating your advice, taking into account the wider range of RCTs available, as well as the meta-analysis results published by the AJT. Furthermore, given the fast-moving nature of the pandemic, I would further urge you to be more flexible regarding your position on dismissing non-peer-reviewed evidence on this topic, even if this requires a more ‘hands-on’ approach to evaluating the evidence in question, in order to ensure academic rigour.

At the risk of sounding trite, lives may well depend on it.

Is mise le meas,
Graham Stull

* Bryant, Andrew & Lawrie, Theresa & Dowswell, Therese & Fordham, Edmund & Scott, Mitchell & Hill, Sarah & Tham, Tony. (2021). Ivermectin for prevention and treatment of COVID-19 infection: a systematic review, meta-analysis and trial sequential analysis to inform clinical guidelines. 

The Eight Things We Know About COVID

1) Masks don’t work. Not a single RCT study has shown positive effects of mask mandates in the community setting.

2) Lockdowns don’t work (very well). When factors like demographics and pop density are taken into account, they maybe shaved 10% off the curve. Maybe.

3) The Infection Fatality Rate is low – 0.03% even without using any effective treatments. Anyone under 70 faces a risk from COVID lower than from the flu. For young adults and children the risk is miniscule. Over 70s face higher and risking risks (but that’s true for lots of things).

4) There isn’t much evidence of asymptomatic transmission. So if you’re not sick, you don’t need to change your behaviour at all. There’s really no evidence you could harm others.

5) Vaccines appear to provide protection against symptomatic infection, but they have some short-term negative side effects. Spike proteins escape into the vascular system and can cause blood clots, or concentrate in the ovaries of women. While these cases are rare, their likelihood is higher among younger vaccine recipients. Women face a higher risk of negative side effects than men.

6) Longer-term effects of the (mRNA) vaccines are unknown. They may include fertility effects, damage to brain tissue or other unknown effects. Fetuses may be negatively impacted in cases where spike protein escapes into ovaries or is passed through the umbilical chord.

7) The best evidence suggests immuno-protection afforded by previous infection is likely to be lifelong. So if you’ve had COVID, there is little reason for you to wear a mask, get vaccinated or behave in any way other than normal.

8) There exists at least one off-patent, readily available, and safe drug for prophalaxis and treatment of COVID, which obtains results close to, if not at par with, those of the experimental mRNA vaccines. It is called Ivermectin. Those familiar with the wealth of extant data are convinced that if it were prescribed en masse tomorrow, the pandemic, such as it is, would be over in a month.

Conspiracy is breathing at the same time: let’s all take a deep breath.

A knave by any other name…

One of the worst things you can be called nowadays is a ‘conspiracy theorist’. It is right up there with ‘anti-vaxxer’, ‘COVID denier’ and ‘Trumper’ as a dysphemism with the weight of mainstream, neo-liberal social condemnation behind it. Very few of those who wield it as a ball-and-chain in the melee of internet comment battles ever stop to consider what the two words in the compound actually mean.

To ‘conspire’ is for two or more parties to agree in secret a course of negative action. ‘Theory’ is a much abused word in common parlance. As Brett Weinstein has been at pains to point out over at the Darkhorse Podcast, in the scientific sense a ‘theory’ is a well-substantiated explanation of a phenomenon, which fits together laws, hypothesis and observational data.

A Wuhan conspiracy? Or just people breathing at the same time?

So when those advancing the Lab Leak Hypothesis concerning the origins of COVID were branded conspiracy theorists, the branders were unwittingly using doublespeak. Because in fact no collective secret agreement was needed to conceal the mistake that is hypothesised to have occured at the Wuhan Institute of Virology in late 2019 – a simple denial on the part of those involved will suffice, combined with an unwillingness to allow any meaningful investigation. Nor does the hypothesis in any way hinge on leading virologists like Peter Daszak from EcoHealth Alliance sitting in a smoky back room with President Xi and Tony Fauci. He might simply pursue naked self-interest in aligning himself with the statements of the Chinese Communist Party. And likewise, the media who skillfully ignored the leads that were publicly available last year needn’t have been party to any conspiracy; their distaste for Donald Trump was enough for them to shy away. Since no one has a positive motive to admit the truth, there is little need to assume they would agree to withhold or suppress it.

Nor is the hypothesis necessarily worthy of earning the title ‘theory’, as it lacks the weight of rigorous testing to which hypotheses should be subjected.

Are so! Am not! Are so! AM NOT! ARE SO!…

But none of that matters, because the term ‘conspiracy theory’ has assumed a meaning distinct from the sum of its parts. It now merely infers, ‘a statement or line of reasoning that is out of step with orthodox views, and which is therefore worthy of public derision, and association with which should cause a loss of credibility for its proponents, advocates or even elucidators.

Like its siblings in the medical and political spheres, the conspiracy theory label does much damage to our ability to understand and find positive solutions to important problems. Those unjustly branded with this label are shoved further away from the centre, making consensus more difficult. And the fact-free, lebel-heavy nature of such accusations is at best lazy, at worst feeds a cycle of ad hominom attacks and ego battles. Reason emerges as the big loser.

Content warning: this section has been fact-checked by Facebook’s independent shareholders and found to pose risks to Facebook’s share value

All this is a preamble to address an example of just such a ‘conspiracy theory’; one which has received surprisingly little air time, even among those whose natural scepticism earns them the collective designation ‘tin foil hat brigade’.

I am referring to the role Big Tech has played in steering the political discourse. Anyone paying attention cannot be ignorant of the considerable power these tech monopolies now have over virtually every aspect of our lives. Many on the neo-liberal centre left didn’t blink when, in the wake of  controversial election results in January, Jack Dorsey used his editorial control of Twitter to silence the democratically elected leader of the Free World. They barely raised an eyebrow when, shortly thereafter, Jeff Bezos used his control of servers to shut down Parler, effectively silencing half the political voices in the US. Because, well, Orange Man Bad.

Yet they ought to have been concerned. You don’t need to be an exceptional scholar of the history of tyranny to appreciate that when that kind of power exists, it will not exclusively be used against your political foes. And so there was somewhat more of a collective gasp when, a little later, Facebook acted to effectively shut down the virtual lives of millions of Australians, when that country dared try and enforce the intellectual property of its free press.

But few have wondered about the role Big Tech is so evidently playing in this ongoing pandemic response. No one seems to ask how it is that, barely 16 months ago, no country in the world would have considered lockdowns as any legitimate pandemic response, yet the media and social media were virtually unanimous in supporting these measures. No one wonders why Alex Berenson’s pamphlets which make this very point and others were banned from Amazon, saved only by a personal intervention on the part of Elon Musk. No one queries how numerous YouTubers, from Iver Cummins to Freddie Sayers to TalkRadio have faced content removel, shadow banning and demonitisation, all for the crime of daring to engage in public debate on the most important and unprecedented policy change of the Century, and at a time when it was literally illegal for us to have such discussions in person.

Q: Qui bono? A: Page, Gates, Zuckerschmuck, Dorsey, Bezos…especially Bezos

This lack of questioning is all the more surprising when you consider the obvious motives these companies have in promoting as much panic and overreaction to COVID as possible. By closing coffee shops, people take to Twitter and Facebook to stay in touch, with Google running everywhere in the background. For this they need computers, sold to them by Gates. And by shuttering physical stores, more people shop on Amazon, and Bezos pulls ahead of Musk in the race to be the world’s billioniest billionaire.

But don’t take my word for it. Just look at what happened to the share value of all these publicly traded companies in the wake of the pandemic. Without exception, they profited massively. And likewise, as things have threatened to return to normal, share values begin settling down again. Then suddenly: second wave, third wave, UK variant, South African variant, Indian variant, limited natural immunity, vaccinate yet wear masks forever…

Of course, this is a crazy ‘conspiracy theory’. But my point is that no conspiracy is actually needed. In fact, given these publicly traded companies have no legal duty to tell ‘truth’, yet do have a fiduciary duty to maximise shareholder value, you could easily argue it would be illegal for them to not downplay content that tends to reduce lockdowns and encourage people back into the physical world. Evil? Perhaps. But that’s business. And with business decisions increasingly being taken by AI, it’s not even clear that an unscrupulous human being is required to achieve that outcome. Skynet could be doing it all on its own.

When all is said and done, very little is being said and nothing is being done

What is most worrying is the relative lack of meaningful post mortem. On any of it. By which I mean: On face masks. On lockdowns. On border closures. On the media’s role. On Big Tech’s role, and how policy decisions are arrived at. On the role of Big Pharma. On the origins of the virus. On the role of the WHO. On the role of Anthony Fauci and other ‘medical and scientific experts’, and how consensus is reached within their hierarchies. On the side effects of mRNA vaccines. On why large-scale clinical trials were not ordered in April 2020, (or October 2020, January 2021…or even today) on ivermectin, given its safety and the clear evidence it might be an effective, if not ‘pandemic ending’ treatment.

At this stage, these questions are becoming increasinly academic in nature. But it is nevertheless important that we answer them, and make a concerted effort to address the weaknesses that have allowed a relatively mild pandemic to do so much damage to our societies, our economies and our well-being.

But there is still time to ask the right questions

As a start, I would suggest we need to consider the harms of informational monopolies in terms that go beyond classical market failure (consumer prices) and take into account societal harm and harm to our democracies. We need to take a hard look at how our institutions – academia and the medical establishment – perform in light of funding, hierarchy and the process of peer review. We need to look at how media voices create and sustain particular narratives, including the role of corporate control and ownership in mainstream media channels.

Oh, and we need to consider how the Chinese Communist Party is using its high degree of centralised power to achieve favourable political and market outcomes outside its own borders.

Facemasks in Brussels: A Textbook Example of Bad Regulation

If you abstract from the very real impact these dystopian restictions have on our lives, there is a certain academic pleasure to be had in analysing just how bad the policymaking around COVID has been.

My favourite example of this is without a doubt the decision by the Brussels region to make facemasks mandatory in outdoor public places, with a hefty fine for non-compliance. I’m sure Brussels isn’t alone in this measure, but as I limit my exposure to the news and as travel is not allowed, I can’t comment on how this might be administered in other places.

But the Brussels face mask law manages to break every one of my principles of good policymaking. Here goes:

A good law should be

  1. Effective in achieving its stated aim (if enforced). We know, from multiple sources, that there is no scientific evidence supporting the use of face masks in the community setting. Randomised control trials on influenza-like illnesses have shown, for decades, that they either do nothing, or do next to nothing, to slow infections. Where they have been proven effective is in hospital settings, when used by trained professionals, in conjuction with other hygiene measures.
  2. Proportionate to the aim. Formally, proportionality means it should be the least burdensome way of achieving a stated goal. But as stated above, there is no evidence that the measure can achieve its stated aim, it cannot be said that the measure is proportionate to this aim. Indeed, much of the ‘wisdom’ behind the face mask rule seems to repose on the fact that, while it has no measurable benefits, it is also not really that onerous a requirement to impose (I question this – see below).
  3.  Transparent and clear in its application. The rule as written makes exceptions for anyone who is a jogger or is in the act of drinking or eating. There are less clear, but de facto just as real, exceptions for smokers. But what is a jogger? If I am kitted out for a jog, but decide to only walk, am I in breach of the law? What if I stop for a short breather? Should I put on my mask? What if I am walking very briskly or even running, but not wearing the requisite sporty outfit? Does the face mask rule come with a description of what is the appropriate sort of attire which permits one to be outside without strapping a piece of cloth to one’s face? What if one has an unlit cigarette dangling from one’s lips, which one leaves there for several kilometres? What if one’s juice bottle is nearly empty and one holds it, nursing the last few drops as one strolls from Berchem-St Agathe to Fort Jaco?
  4. Fair. Good laws do not have a disproportionate impact on the poorest citizens. But this one clearly does: If you have the good fortune to live in a large house with a garden, you can enjoy time outside with the sun on your face. But if you live in a little apartment, you will be denied this pleasure for months at a time.
  5.  Enforceable in a consistent manner. There is no way to enforce such a measure, even if clear criteria for its application could be assured. Simply put, there are too many people in the city and too few police to enforce this rule. Consistent enforceability is really important. Without it enforcement becomes a sort of lottery. This is very toxic for both the community and the enforcers themselves. Having unenforcable rules languishing on the books creates an environment in which the citizenry grows wary of police contact, generally unsure whether or not they might get called out for a breach of some half-forgotten law. On the opposite side, there is the risk that enforcement becomes arbitrary, giving to the enforcer the discretion to punish at will. To be clear, this is not something a well regulated state should tolerate: Police enjoy a monopoly on physical force with very clear strings attached; they must exercise that power with a minimum of personal discretion. Anything else opens the door to discrimination and abuse of power.
  6. Free of unintended consequences. The list of unintended consequences from forcing an entire population to cover its face in public is very long indeed. First is the loss of public discourse and social interaction, leading to psychological distress and isolation. Then there are the costs for hearing impaired people who rely on lip reading to participate in public life. Then there is the risk of criminal activity from criminals being allowed to walk about freely in disguise. Then there are the (albeit evidence-free) claims of adverse health effects from mask usage. Then there is the financial cost, the environmental burden, and the list goes on.
  7. Measureable in its impacts. For any law, it should be possible to perform a review, to assess using objective benchmarks whether or not the above criteria were indeed met. But for the facemask rule, there are no such criteria. How can we know if, in the absence of the measure, things would have been worse? This is why measures should be piloted first, tested to see if they work. It happens that tests were done in the Netherlands, and on the basis of them, the Dutch took the decsion not to implement outdoor facemask rules. Could the Brussels authorities not have learned from the example of their Dutch neighbours, and refrained from muzzling the entire population?

Open Letter to Dr Trish Greenhalgh on her BMJ article concerning face masks

Dear Trish,
I’m writing to you to express my concern about the medical consensus that has slowly formulated around the use of face masks in public settings as a measure to mitigate against the spread of COVID-19. I read your bmj article on the subject and was frankly alarmed at the arguments you used to back this position.
Having looked at the issue in some detail, it seems reasonably clear that there is at best, as you put it, ‘sparse and controversial’ evidence that face masks stop the spread of SARS-Cov-2 in the community setting.The fact that you nevertheless argue in favour of such measures, on the basis that you see them as essentially costless – “we have little to lose” – is deeply worrying.
Mandatory rules around the use of masks in public are far from costless. In the first instance, they have important and detrimental consequences on the hearing impaired, who rely on lip reading to understand and contextualise verbal meaning. More generally, facial expression is an intrinsic part of human interactions; physical barriers impede not only droplets of saliva, but also the visual appreciation of body language which is a large part of the context in which speech is delivered.
Second, there is the economic and environmental cost of mass production, dissemination and disposal of face masks. A single mask is of low cost, but multiplied by millions, it represents a not-insubstantial addition to our impact on the planet, and a related economic burden, particularly on the most vulnerable in our society.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the very act of mandating an accoutrement of this kind entails a system of state intervention and imposition on public life. The symbol value is strong; it is a mark of control, just as certain religions mandate the use of clothing to demarcate adherence to doctrine; just as military and law enforcement mandates the wearing of uniforms to instil discipline and diminish any instinct towards individualism which might threaten the goals of the collective.
Indeed, the very requirement to conform is a small – but persistent and deep – incision into our liberties. It lessens our individuality all the more to have the most expressive and personal part of our anatomy covered from view in public, and it allows the state and the medical establishment to dictate our behaviours, not – I repeat – on the basis of any substantiated scientific knowledge, but rather on the whim of a cadre of experts, who merely deem it possible that this measure could have a beneficial effect.
Apropos the beneficial effect: Your article was written in early April, when less was known about the shape and scale of the COVID threat. Though even at that stage the contours of the epidemic were crystallizing as less than apocalyptic, there was still some concern that COVID could carry with it an infection fatality rate of as high as 1-2%, with an infected population of 70 to 80% of the general population.
It is now amply clear to anyone who takes an honest look at the data that this worst case scenario is not only implausible, but in fact nearly impossible. In Belgium, where I live, almost all lockdown measures have been relaxed since early June – schools reopened, shops, bar and restaurants are full – all with no effect on new ICU admissions. Hospitals are almost completely empty.
Indeed, as some experts wisely predicted even at the time, populations would reach full exposure (Belgium, France, Northern Italy, most of the UK, New York) as the disease followed a classic gamma trajectory, with heavy left skewness; whereafter the rate of new infection would cease to be a major public health concern. The infection fatality rate will never exceed 0.01%, and is even lower when measured in quality adjusted life years.
As the evidence gathers, in fact, it becomes increasingly obvious that the lockdowns put in place had only marginal or no effect on the spread of the disease, and that to the extent they did anything, it has been only to slow the virus’ inevitable progression across the population.
In this context, your core argument for insisting on the use of face masks: “covid-19 is a serious illness that currently has no known treatment or vaccine and is spreading in an immune naive population. Deaths are rising steeply, and health systems are under strain.” appears much less compelling than it perhaps did in April.
Given the above, I would ask you to reconsider your position as expressed in the article, and work with your co-authors to publish a corrigium, in which you argue against the mandatory use of face masks in the community setting.
The stakes are, in fact, quite high.
Kind regards,
Graham Stull